PORTLAND -- Newly enshrined Hall of Famer Arvydas Sabonis was taken aback by the cheers he garnered at a downtown rally Thursday in his honor.
I'm very surprised, he told nearly 3,000 fans gathered in Portland's Pioneer Courthouse Square. I don't know what to say. I appreciate you remember me.
Sabonis was visiting Portland after being inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame last Friday. The 7-foot-3, 300-pound Lithuanian center was a star in Europe before coming to the NBA at age 31 to play for the Trail Blazers. He spent seven seasons in Portland.
Sabonis had not returned to the city in the eight years since his retirement. But it was evident Thursday he was still beloved, with fans chanting his nickname, Sabas.
Former teammates Brian Grant and Chris Dudley took part in the celebration. One boy who appeared to be too young to have seen Sabonis play held a sign that read Sabas Rocks!
I feel honored to have played with Arvydas Sabonis -- one of the best players ever, Dudley said. There was a time he was considered the best player in the world.
Sabonis, a native of Kaunas, Lithuania, helped the Soviet Union win the 1988 Olympic gold medal, which included a semifinal win over the United States. He led Lithuania to bronze medals in the 1992 and 1996 Olympics. The Lithuanian teams became underdog favorites because of sponsorship by the Grateful Dead.
He was drafted in 1986 but didn't come to the NBA until 1995. He retired in 2001, but returned to the Blazers for one additional season in 2002-03.
In 470 regular season games with the Blazers, Sabonis averaged 12 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. He was dogged by various injuries in his later years, so NBA fans never really saw how good he was -- the elegant passing, his skillful 3-pointer and dangerous hook shot.
Outside the game, Sabonis was an unassuming personality, shy about using English. Grant recalled that he thought Sabonis didn't speak until one day after a fall he asked You OK?
Asked to characterize his NBA career, Sabonis said: First, good. Second, not good. And third, good again.
Sabonis, 46, finally retired from professional basketball in 2005 after playing with his hometown Lithuanian team, Zalgiris. He is now a part owner of the Euroleague team.
After the rally, Sabonis was the guest of honor at an evening reception hosted by the Trail Blazers.
Mayor Sam Adams officially proclaimed Thursday Arvydas Sabonis Day.